Deflating Bob Park's Latest Rant

The Dark Side of the Moon, Op Ed by Bob Park, NY Times

"Two mechanical geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, are doing this even now, by searching for evidence of water on opposite sides of Mars. They don't break for lunch or complain about the cold nights, and they live on sunshine. They've been at it for nearly two years, yet their mission costs less than sending a shuttle to the International Space Station. The brains of Spirit and Opportunity are the brains of geologists back on Earth." ... "Few scientists are calling for a human mission to the Moon or Mars. Human space exploration is essentially over."

Editor's note: Once again Bob Park crawls out of his intellectual crypt to dump on human spaceflight. As is always the case, Bob shoves out his ossified examples without fully researching them - and hurls them forth as if they were absolute statements of what entire segments of the space research community - and the public - feels. Were he to have bothered to ask the Mars Exploration Rover PI, Steve Squyres, what he thinks about having humans on Mars, a large hole would be blown in Park's argument. Surely such an opinion would carry some merit. But again, Bob is lazy when it comes to presenting the facts. Here is what Sqyures said exactly one year ago on this topic at the "Risk and Exploration Symposium" in Monterey:

"And when I hear people point to Spirit and Opportunity and say that these are examples of why we don't need to send humans to Mars, I get very upset. Because that's not even the right discussion to be having. We must send humans to Mars. We can't do it soon enough for me. You know, I'm a robot guy. I mean, I love Spirit and Opportunity - and I use a word like "love" very advisedly when talking about a hunk of metal.

But I love those machines. I miss them. I do. But they will never, ever have the capabilities that humans will have and I sure hope you send people soon."

Read Squyres' full commentary



Proceedings from the NASA Administrator's Symposium: "Risk and Exploration: Earth, Sea and the Stars", NASA Administrator's Symposium, September 26-29, 2004

Session Three: The Stars (PDF)

Pages 178-179

"I'd like to finish this on a slightly lighter note by telling you a story. We had a lot of discussion yesterday about humans versus robots. And as the robot guy here, I want to tell a story about the experience that I had that really taught me a lot about that particular topic. We were at first trying to figure out how to use a set of rovers on Mars to really do scientific exploration. The technology folks at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] built a wonderful little vehicle called FIDO. And FIDO was a great test rover - you could take it out in the field and you didn't worry about getting a few scratches in the paint.

We took it out to a place called Silver Lake in the Mojave Desert about 1997. And we went out there and it was the first time I had ever been out in the field. So I went out there with my team - a bunch of really high-priced geologic talent - some serious field geologists. And we got the rover out there and, of course, the rover breaks down. First time I've ever been out in the field, it's dusty, it's dirty, you know, the rover's not working. So okay, what am I going to do with all these bored geologists I've got on my hands? So I said, "Look, let's go on a geology walk. Let's go on a little field trip." So everybody got their boots and their rock hammers and their hand lenses and everything. And I picked up a notebook and a stopwatch. And we walked out to a nearby ridge where I knew there was some interesting geology exposed and we sat down - or rather I sat down - and they went off and they started geologizing.

And I started timing them. You know, how long does it take for Andy Knoll to walk over to that rock? How long does it take Ray Arvidson to pick that thing up and break it open with his rock hammer and look at it with a hand lens? And they were doing a lot of things that our rovers couldn't do, but I focused on the things they were doing that our rovers could do. And, you know, I did it as quantitatively as I could - this was hardly a controlled experiment. And when I looked at the numbers afterwards, what I found was that what our magnifi cent robotic vehicles can do in an entire day on Mars, these guys could do in about 3045 seconds.

We are very far away from being able to build robots - I'm not going to see it in my lifetime - that have anything like the capabilities that humans will have to explore, let alone to inspire. And when I hear people point to Spirit and Opportunity and say that these are examples of why we don't need to send humans to Mars, I get very upset. Because that's not even the right discussion to be having. We must send humans to Mars. We can't do it soon enough for me. You know, I'm a robot guy. I mean, I love Spirit and Opportunity - and I use a word like "love" very advisedly when talking about a hunk of metal.

But I love those machines. I miss them. I do. But they will never, ever have the capabilities that humans will have and I sure hope you send people soon."


Reader note: In Squyre's book, "Roving Mars", he notes on page 234:

"The unfortunate truth is that most things our rovers can do in a perfect sol (day's work), a human explorer on the scene could do in less than a minute."

And his concluding thought at the end of his book, on page 378:

"The rovers are our surrogates, our robotic precursors to a world that, as humans, we're still not quite ready to visit. And that's what I really want to see change. There are many things I could wish for our rovers, but in the end, there's only one that matters. What I really want, more than anything else, is boot prints in our wheel tracks at Eagle Crater."


Reader note: I thought that "Deflating Bob Park's Latest Rant" was a great comeback to Bob Park's rantings and ravings. I admire Steve Squyres for his Mars work and for supporting an inclusive future with both robots and humans in space.

Another great scientist with a long association with JPL is Carl Sagan, who wrote a whole book on the subject of why human spaceflight is a good thing: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679438416 "When we first venture to a near-Earth asteroid, we will have entered a habitat that may engage our species forever. The first voyage of men and women to Mars is the key step in transforming us into a multiplanet species. These events are as momentous as the colonization of the land by our amphibian ancestors and the descent from the trees by our primate ancestors." - "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space", page 332


"Hi Keith -

Just wanted to thank you for doing your part to debunk Bob Park's latest rant against human space-flight. When I saw his editorial in the NY Times, I nearly had a stroke. I just can't fathom how any real scientist can state his personal opinions as if they were hard scientific fact. And on top of it all, he claimed to be speaking for all of us! His editorial gave the whole space-science field a big, very painful black-eye.

As an AI-researcher, I can vouch that Steve Squires' comments about robotics are right on the mark (and will continue to be true for a LONG time to come). While Park lives in a Star-Trek fantasy-world, Squires lives in reality. The most-promising future for exploration-capable (i.e. non-military) robotics is in human-machine tele-robotics - projects like Bill Clancey's "Mobile Agents" at Ames.

Cheers,

Brian Enke
Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, CO
(author: Shadows of Medusa, http://www.shadowsofmedusa.com

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on September 22, 2005 12:11 PM.

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